What Is A Hook In Music? A Complete Guide

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Imagine for a moment that you’re sitting in your car or just casually listening to background music, when suddenly, out of the blue, your foot starts tapping. Something about a song has hooked you and elicited a visceral response. You just can’t stop yourself from humming or whistling the tune. If your foot starts tapping and your body starts swaying to some primordial beat, it almost feels as if you are out of control.

Ever wondered why that is? Well, that’s what we’re going to explain in this blog post. We’ll take a look at what a hook is, where it comes from, and what makes a good hook. Let’s start with defining a hook.

Definition of Hook in Music

Defining exactly what a hook in music is, is somewhat controversial.

Ask anyone what a hook is and they’ll give you various answers.

Some say it’s the chorus, others say it’s the melody, while others insist it’s the beat or even a particular phrase or distinct repeating structure of the song.

And the thing is, they’ll all be right.

A hook can be all or none of those things.

Each song or piece of music is different and one must approach different kinds of music in an altogether different way.

One thing we can be sure of is that a hook is a defining section of a song or composition that literally “hooks” you in, grabs your attention, and then stays with you even after the song is finished.

It can be a part of the lyrics, a melody, or even a repeating beat or rhythm that stands out and becomes memorable.

Some hooks are as unique as a particularly unusual instrument or sound.

By going back in history, we can get a feel for what a hook is and how it came to be so important.

History of Hooks

Hooks are not commonly associated with classical music and the phrase generally refers to popular music genres such as Pop, Rock (in all its forms), Rap and Hip Hop, Heavy Metal, Rhythm and Blues, and contemporary dance music.

The closest you will come to a hook in classical music would be an ostinato.

Ostinato refers to a beat or melody that repeats.

In its strictest form, the ostinato should be an exact replica each time.

However, it is common for there to be repetition, variations, and development of the core ostinato line.

Invariably, the hook in modern music consists of recognizable riffs, but this is not always the case.

Let’s look at some examples of famous riffs that are also examples of hooks.

Examples of Hooks

A classic hook that has stood the test of time is the opening few bars of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

The opening bars are as memorable today as they were when first performed over 200 years ago.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’

The BeeGees – Staying Alive is one of those songs that you just can’t get out of your head.

It only takes a few notes and it will stay with you for the rest of the day.

The hook I’m referring to is of course, “ah, ha, ha, ha… staying alive, staying alive”.

BeeGees – ‘Staying Alive

Drake is internationally known for his hit song – Nice for What.

By looping sampled sections of various tracks, hip hop made sampling an art form and the hook was created through repetition.

Drake – ‘Nice for What

Louis Armstrong took a well-known song and turned it into a hit with his unique approach – When The Saints Go Marching In.

Louis Armstrong – ‘When The Saints Go Marching In

The opening bars of Deep Purple’s – Smoke on the Water is iconic and instantly recognizable.

Deep Purple – ‘Smoke on the Water

So what makes a good hook and how can you recognize one?

What Makes a Good Hook?

Hooks need to be catchy, so the melody or rhythm needs to be simple to be memorable.

Most catchy hooks only use 4 notes, with some popular songs creating a buzz with just 2 notes.

Being melodically simple, the audience can memorize and sing along with difficulty.

This leads to the next requirement for a good hook and that is simple, yet relatable lyrics.

Whether the lyrics are memorable due to their common theme of love, loss, and heartbreak or even if the composer creates new words or clever rhymes, basic human nature will ensure that these common themes will ensure the song sticks in your mind long after the music has ended.

Finally, repetition works.

Play it long enough, and hear it often enough, and that hook will be set in stone.

The best hooks conjure up feelings and memories of life-changing events that endure for decades.

Now that you have an idea of what a good hook is, we can compare various types of hooks.

Hook vs Riff Vs Lick

Riffs and licks can be the hook in a song, however, the hook is not necessarily a riff or lick.

In popular music, the song’s hook is usually a riff.

But this is not always the case.

As the chords and note patterns that provide the song’s identity are repeated, they create a distinctive characteristic of that piece of music.

The lick, in contrast, is a part of the riff but is generally not considered to be the hook for a particular song.

Being incomplete on its own, the lick contributes to the overall effect of the riff without being memorable or distinct enough to hold its own as the hook.

In Conclusion

A hook is clearly an important aspect of composition and is one of the most important aspects in deciding the success or failure of a piece of music.

As mentioned above, a good hook can stand the test of time, as evidenced by music that is as distinctive now as it was more than 200 years ago.

No matter your choice of music, identifying the hook is easy.

But explaining what a hook is, can be a difficult task as opinions vary greatly as to what makes for a great hook.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.